Every school kid has its own stereotypical tag. It is basically an unwritten rule of our school life. I believe a first impression should not be the bedrock for creating an image of a person. I have been a continuous target of this absurdity. I got the label of the quintessential shy nerd. Well, when people can’t distinguish between quiet and shy, this happens. I don’t see myself confined within the label of an introvert or an extrovert. We cannot divide the world into black and white. Our lives occasionally need a silver lining. Every person is a complicated being, we cannot confine people within a category.
Initially, I attempted to blend in. Even after all my efforts, I was still being viewed as a loner. It took me a while to realize that I was a person who stands out instead of merging in with the crowd. I stopped trying. I let people believe what they wanted to. I had almost given up hope of finding my kindred spirits. Almost.
Thankfully, my hope was not a misplaced fantasy. Within the first week of high school, I found my tribe. We were an inseparable group of five. Each of us were unique in our own way. Their non-judgemental and welcoming attitude convinced me I will just fit fine. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have them. I was about to get this epiphany soon enough.
Every year on children’s day, our school staff treated the entire class to a picnic. Unlike the last three years, this year we would explore an unknown destination. We indicated our excitement level by showing up early on the venue. If only we knew what awaited us, we would have avoided the picnic like a plague.
It has been two months since that debacle. And I bet the incident feels fresh, like it happened yesterday. I am an ardent believer of experiencing whatever adventure comes your way. Probably I need to think twice before making a wish.
The new picnic spot was an hour away from our school. Every day, we used to come to school by an auto. Travelling by bus has always been a rarity for us. So, we expected a fight for the window seat. To avoid the ruckus, we adopted the lucky draw system and agreed not to crib on the outcome. We were enjoying every second of the ride, no matter how mundane the view was. The shock and disbelief was written on the faces of my classmates, when I started singing at the top of my lungs along with my friends. They had a smug smile on their face. Nobody had been successful in accomplishing this feat. Well, because nobody bothered to, with all the preconceived notions about me.
Anyway, we reached our destination at 11:00 in the morning. It was a beautiful park, more like a small settlement of its own. Maybe like a miniature version of a village. The view was spectacular. At the entrance there was a monolithic cave which made me feel like I was actually inside one. They did a splendid job of creating an environment detached from the hustle bustle of the modern world. During our time as elementary school students, we were accustomed to lead a life of habit. Visiting the same destination every year. I am not against it. Now, as I reflect, the familiarity of a place gave us a collective sense of nostalgia. I am sure even after ten years, if any of us visited our old picnic spot, we would enthusiastically relive the memories of every nook and corner. But this is not a story of sweet memories, it is a recount of the nightmare that would haunt us forever.
Once our class in-charge took the customary attendance, she gave us three hours of unsupervised afternoon before regrouping for lunch. We immediately tried to locate the farthest location of the park. Discovering a remote location was a commendable act. That was our first mistake. We found an isolated spot away from the rest of the crowd. It was a perfectly enchanting corner. A mesmerizing lake surrounded by trees, and an empty boat floating around. It was like a dream of a dream. The ideal setting that you read only in some books. We had bought our snack bags, some comics, Walkman and some board games with us. After a few minutes of deliberation, we found the perfect spot, not too close to the lake, with adequate tree shade. It had been almost an hour since we found the spot. By this time we were dead tired. A sudden uneasiness crept over me. I felt as if I was being watched. I turned around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I did not wish to alarm my friends, so I tried to pretend normal. But my sixth sense was going off like an alarm suggesting danger.
Suddenly, we all heard a voice shouting our names. One of our classmates ran frantically towards us. She was hysterically sobbing. When she saw us, she controlled her sobbing and said, “Shiba is missing. I searched for her everywhere. Have you seen her? I found her backpack near one swing. Oh, god, I hope she is all right.”
“Calm down, where did you see her last? This is just a park where else could she go. She might have just lost direction. Come on, we will help you in finding her.” I said. As we were assembling all our belongings, an old lady appeared from the clearing behind the tree. She was carrying a basket with some gardening tools. She was looking at us strangely. We all were very uncomfortable. I asked her, “Have you seen any girl wandering around here alone?” She stared at me for a minute, rearranged her basket, and without uttering a word walked away. I released a breath I did not know I was holding. We resumed our search. It was lunchtime. After almost an hour of searching for Shiba, we alerted the authorities. On our way, we came across a deep well. In a hurry to get back, I didn’t realize that the area around the well was slippery. I jerked and somehow stopped myself from falling flat on my face or worse into the well. But my Walkman slipped from my hand and fell inside the well. I started panicking. It was a costly birthday gift. For a moment I completely forgot about Shiba. I was close to tears. Again, out of nowhere, that strange lady came near us. She did not even glance at us. She removed the rope tied to the well bucket and made a complicated knot. She fastened it to the metal hinges coming out at the corners of the well and plunged into the well. Our faces were white with disbelief. She found the Walkman and climbed back up using the fastened rope like a cakewalk. She dried herself and handed it back to me. This spectacle had garnered an audience. Our class in- charge along with a few other students had gathered around us. Before I could utter thank you, she bent towards her basket and took out a sharp pointed chisel and grabbed one of my friends towards her and pointed the chisel at her neck. My friend shrieked. I couldn’t lift my leg. It paralysed me with fear. I couldn’t comprehend what the hell was happening. The old lady started laughing maniacally and shouted, “You will never find your little friend. Just like her, this girl will also meet her fate.” This demented declaration gave way to chaos. All the students started running hysterically towards the exit. Our class in charge tried to reason with the lady, promising her of some reward if she would just release the student. I still couldn’t move. I felt a shot of pain on my right leg. I looked around and couldn't find the source. I bent slowly and saw a stone had hit me. While I was looking down, another stone hit me at the back of my head, and I turned back. I heard a muffled cry coming from a tree opposite to the well. That caused my legs to come back into action. I gulped and slowly moved towards the tree. Shiba was tied to the tree, her mouth was tied with some cloth. I immediately started to undo the ropes. My hands were shaking. As I was fumbling to open the knots, I suddenly realized it was the same complicated knot that the old lady had made when she jumped into the well. Something clicked inside my head. I signed and told her to keep quiet as I removed the cloth. I wasn’t able to untie the knot, my hands were sweaty. I heard footsteps behind me. I was too scared to look back. Thankfully, those footsteps were of two of my friends. They crouched on my level and started to work on the knots. After what seemed like hours, we finally managed to free her hands. Once, she was free she started sobbing and said, “I was so afraid, I did not know what else to do except throw stones at you using my legs. There was no guarantee it would hit you.”
“Don’t worry, you were really brave. If it was not for the stone, I never would have looked at your direction. You did good. I think…” I paused midway. The talk of stone gave me an idea. I looked at my friends. They understood. We took a handful of stones and aimed at the lady. Our intention was to hurt her just enough so she could get distracted. Our efforts were not in vain. The onslaught of enormous stones faltered her sturdy grip on my classmate. The girl elbowed the lady and ran towards our teacher. Relief swept over our teacher. By this time, my other friends had sneaked away from the site and had alerted the campus security. Two guards came rushing towards the lady who was cursing at the top of her lungs. We were at last safe. As I climbed back into the bus, there was a deafening silence all around. None of the students dared to make noise. Although they did not speak for the entire ride, their grateful glances and nods at the five of us, took away the residual fear of the nightmare we faced. Next day, our daily newspaper published a detailed report about the incident. Apparently, that lady had escaped from an institution, which treated the disturbed. Hoping to get some money, she had planned the entire kidnapping. Her jumping into the well and retrieving my Walkman was a planned distraction. She had overheard us. She had no idea who she was dealing with. Just like the others, she underestimated our strength. That day, the misfits broke the cliques dividing the entire class. We became the flag bearers of courage and unity.
- Deepti Venugopal